Posts

American Jews Are Double Agents: Deal With It

To: Shmuel Rosner From: David Samuels Oh, come off it, Shmuel. You don't think American Jews are a tiny little itty-bitty bit weird? You think that Israeli Jews are a proud, normal, happy, contradiction-free people inhabiting our ancestral Jewish homeland … Read More

By / May 21, 2008

To: Shmuel Rosner

From: David Samuels

Oh, come off it, Shmuel.

You don't think American Jews are a tiny little itty-bitty bit weird? You think that Israeli Jews are a proud, normal, happy, contradiction-free people inhabiting our ancestral Jewish homeland of Israel-Yesha-Palestine-Hamasland? The Israeli religious establishment isn't corrupt, isn't an arm of the state, and doesn't decide who can get married, buried, or divorced based on its medieval definition of Judaism? Iran doesn't pose an existential threat to Israel? Gee, sign me up for whatever planet it is that you are living on.

I thought Ha'aretz correspondents spent their time moaning about the evils of checkpoints and Occupation, urging the government to negotiate with Hamas, covering up the corruption of Israel's Prime Ministers, and sucking up to Norwegian diplomats. And here you are, telling me that everything is perfect.

While I plead guilty to provoking you for the sake of argument, you are guilty of the greater sins of silly logic-chopping and arguing in bad faith. You turn my musings about existential conflicts and contradictions between the American and Jewish identities into "allegations" that "Jews are liars" and then say that such statements are "dangerous" and that "words can be weapons" while proclaiming yourself to be an "adult" and calling me a "rebellious child."

So please believe me when I assure you that the goyim in the FBI are too busy worrying about Barack Obama and John McCain and the price of gas right now to revoke your visa or put me in prison for speculating about the deeper implications of the fact that thinking American and thinking Jewish are not always and exactly the same thing. No one cares besides us Jews and the 15-20% of the population who are already confirmed antisemites. In fact, no one is reading this dialogue on Jewcy besides you, me and my mother, a beautiful and highly intelligent lady who doesn't like it when you call me a Nazi.

So why not be honest, Shmuel: You know that what I am saying about the creative tension and lack of total congruence between Americanism and Judaism is true. You would just rather that I didn't say it. In fact, you think that I am an idiot for saying things that could "ruin" America for the nice Jews who are all exactly like their neighbors despite the fact that they hurry their children past Christmas trees (guilty!) and celebrate New Year's in September, (guilty!) and pray in synagogue for Ehud Olmert and the IDF (guilty!) — the same way that Italian Catholics pray for the health of Silvio Berlusconi and the carabinieri in Milan (not).

I speak Hebrew and go to shul every Shabbat, so enough with the personal slurs and the self-righteous propaganda, please.

What do you imagine might be the results of further public discussion of the weirdness of American Jewry? Pogroms? Show trials for Elliott Abrams and Norman Podhoretz? A ban on playing "We're an American Band" at Bat Mitzvah parties? Luckily for us, the real America is a pretty tolerant place that long ago embraced the real world knowledge that blacks, Jews, gays, Hispanics, woman — nearly everybody, except White Protestant Males, as far as I can figure out — think about the world in ways that run counter in small and big ways to more commonly accepted American narratives, with blacks and Jews being the most visible and influential counter-narrativists.

I think that discussing the often productive and creative tension between American and Jewish identity is important for the present and future of the Jews who choose to live here. What I said was:

If Americans are self-made people who embrace an imagined future in order to escape the burdens of the past, American Jews seek to have their cake and eat it too by embracing the future-oriented American idea without relinquishing their historically bound identity as Jews. While I don't think that the American and the Jewish identity principles are always necessarily opposed, I do think that keeping both ideas in one's head at one time can be the source of a tremendous amount of creative tension.

I am not saying that "Jews are liars" (or traitors) but that there is an inherent and often productive contradiction between the life-shaping stories that "normal" American Christians and American Jews tell each other about where they come from and where they are going. As a writer, I believe that people live through stories that are handed down through the ages by parents and grandparents and that we pass on in turn to our children.

Americans believe, very deeply, in the value and necessity of abolishing the past and living in the future. Americans believe that each individual has the capacity for finding God's grace within him or herself, and can only find it by being born again — independent of family history and ties. While you don't have to be a Christian to accept historically peculiar American ideas about the individual, the past and the future, it is hard to ignore the fact that these ideas are Christian in their history and, I would argue, in their essence.

The stories Jews tell ourselves are different. We tell ourselves stories about our unbroken connection to a common set of tribal ancestors to whom all Jews are connected by blood. We tell ourselves about the unbroken chain of interpretation that connects today's Torah sages to the medieval commentators to the sages of the Gemarra and Mishna to the revelation given to Moses on Har Sinai. We tell ourselves stories about our survival as a people through thousands of years of exile and persecution in which we still claim to be able to see the hand of God.

As a Jew who was educated in religious schools until I was 18 years old, and who travels often to Israel to do reporting and blah blah blah, I have a pretty good grasp of what our common Jewish narratives are supposed to be. I also believe that the stories that American Jews tell themselves fuse elements of American narratives and traditional European Jewish narratives together in ways that don't always make sense.

Now for the question of deception. Let's look at what I actually wrote:

It is also inherently deceptive, in the sense that one is quite often signaling to others that one has agreed to dissolve one's particular heritage and historically bound point of view into a common Christian-inflected, highly individualistic and alienating, yet incredibly productive future-oriented social whole that most American Jews view with a high degree of distance and skepticism.

This part of what I wrote is more controversial, even if I don't state (or believe) that "Jews are liars," to quote your phrase. There is an added complication in the way that Jewish narratives contradict mainstream American narratives: Jews can pass for "normal" Americans today in a way that most blacks or Hispanics can't. And yet the personal, internal, mental act of identifying ourselves as Jews necessarily commits us to some version of a story about Jewish specificity and difference that in turn contradicts some fundamental aspects of the larger story that unites most other Americans.

I am not saying any of the things that your very literal-minded way of reading is forcing on our patient readers. I don't believe that American Jews are likely to spy for Israel, or that being Shomer Shabbat is un-American. I don't believe that the way Jews understand ourselves and our relation to society is a superficial question of customs and manners (although manners too can be important).

I am talking about something deeper. The ways that Jews see the individual and his or her place in the world contradicts core American beliefs about abolishing the past, living in the future, and making yourself up from scratch. Sometimes we acknowledge this contradiction to ourselves, and sometimes we pretend that we think and see the world the same way as everyone else. Sometimes we acknowledge our difference to ourselves and to our friends but not to our Christian neighbors. We are double agents. That's what it means to be a Jew in America.

As an American Jew, you can chose to make sense of the inherent contradictions of our existence in a creative way, which is what I try to do in my own life. Or you can simply live your live as a Jew who randomly happens to reside in America as opposed to Israel or France, like the ultra-orthodox do. Or you can embrace mainstream American notions of personal identity and cease being Jewish in any meaningful way. Finally, one can gratefully acknowledge the contributions of one's long-ago Jewish ancestors (see: John Kerry, William Cohen, Madeleine Albright, etc.).

You are way too eager to overstate the case that superficial cultural blending is somehow essentially "American" and that therefore no contradictions between being a Jew and being an American can possibly exist. That's a silly, ahistorical argument. American history is not Jewish history. You can understand your life according to one narrative, or the other narrative, and sometimes according to both at the same time; but they are two different stories.

Perhaps the one-dimensional version of American Jewish life that you offer is intended to make you sympathetic to your English-speaking audience while concealing your actual, more nuanced and interesting views of the relative weirdness of Jewish life in Israel and America.

It is also possible to understand your arguments here as a symptom of a larger American disease. Not the repugnant suggestion that Jews in the state of "exile" are diseased — an idea that was and is part of the foundational myth of Zionism, and which has little to do with the history of the Jews in America. What is most American about your argument is the fact that you are lying to yourself and to others by reasoning backwards from what "should be true" — for pragmatic reasons — to what is true.

I admit to using techniques of misdirection and deception in my writing in order to bring readers closer to a more nuanced perception of some fraction of reality. Your behavior in this argument is no more or less calculated than mine. The difference between us is that you expect to be taken at your word — and when your convenient version of "reality" is challenged or questioned you get angry and call people names. If that's what you mean by "adult" behavior, don't blame mean-hearted skeptics like me when your kids turn out to be rebellious.

Yours,

David

Tagged with: